HELEN ZIA is an award-winning author, journalist, and scholar who has covered Asian American communities and social and political movements for decades.
Helen holds an honorary Doctor of Laws from the Law School of the City University of New York, for bringing important matters of law and civil rights into public view. She is a graduate of Princeton University’s first graduating class of women. Helen, Chinese American, has been outspoken on social justice issues ranging from human rights, peace to women’s rights, countering hate violence, homophobia, and civil rights campaign against anti-Asian violence.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 05 issue
In 2008, she was one of 79 people in North America who carried the Olympic Torch in San Francisco. SFGATE
China-underground: Is “coming out” nowadays still a problem in some American families?
Helen Zia: Coming out is such a deeply personal act that it is always a concern and there is no way of knowing how accepting–or not–one’s family might be. Yes, there is more media and public discussion about LGBTQ people, but a few TV shows and movies do not erase homophobia. There is still ignorance, intolerance, discriminatory laws and violence in the US as well as elsewhere in the world and it will take long-term commitment, vigilance, and activism to make real change — but it can be done! We can never take human dignity and rights for granted anywhere.
In June 2008, Zia married her partner Lia Shigemura in San Francisco, making them one of the first same-sex couples to legally marry in the state of California.
The struggle for women’s rights, minorities, and LGBTQ rights are intertwined and support each other or travel separately?
There is a saying that an injustice to one is an injustice to all. No one is truly equal and free until everyone is equal and free. When a society allows anyone to be treated as less than equal and therefore less than fully human, we not only rob those people of their full humanity, we also become complicit in their mistreatment. Sometimes people think they can look the other way as long as “their group” isn’t harmed. But that is an illusion because we are all connected by our humanity, and as history has proven over and over again, harsh and autocratic power will inevitably spread like cancer to maintain itself. The story of “first they came for the religious minority, and I said nothing. Then they came for the ethnic minorities, and I said nothing. Then they came for the LGBTQ people, and the poor; and the labor activists; and the immigrants; and the youth; and so on, and I said nothing. And then they came for me.” Our lives and rights as human beings are inextricably linked, there are no degrees of separation.
Zia traveled to Beijing in 1995 to the UN Fourth World Congress on Women as part of journalists of color delegation.
What can individuals do to help recognize the rights of LGBTQ people?
It is important to speak up and support the rights of all people, especially if someone is not part of a targeted group, such as straight people for LGBTQs, men for #metoo, and so on to be allies and to show that people are affected far beyond a targeted group. That support can be in the form of activism and organizing; providing resources such as money or access to power/media etc; sending a message of support; helping to educate friends and family, or simply showing up when needed. Every act of support and kindness, large or small, in recognizing the rights and existence of LGBTQ people helps to make a difference.
“And you – young activists, any activist – you’ve planted a seed. It’s not like it just goes in one ear and out the other. Somewhere it lives.” aafeminist
How has activism changed in the last few years compared to when you started?
Worldwide there has been a conservative, nationalistic and fundamentalist shift that has inflamed fear and even hatred of anyone who is different from the “traditional majority,” whatever that is. Anti-gay, anti-immigrant, misogynistic hate groups have become more visible and powerful — most notably at the top rungs of politics in the US. This is, of course, more challenging for activists and it is important not to get discouraged. History and positive change never move in a straight line and human society have been through terrible times before. We must always remember that positive change is a marathon, not a sprint, and to keep working to bend the arc of history toward justice. We shall overcome!
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She was the former executive editor of Ms. Magazine and continues speaking throughout the nation about the Asian-American and LGBT communities.
What do you feel to say to those who still discriminate LGBTQ people?
I would ask them to try to put themselves in the shoes of those they discriminate against. If they or their loved ones were treated that way, how would they feel? I do recognize that some people are unable or unwilling to have empathy and that they get some kind of self-perceived benefit from hating and discriminating and hurting others. But if they are capable of empathy, then it may be possible to open their hearts and minds.
Helen was named one of the most influential Asian Americans of the decade by A. Magazine.
What advice would you like to give to young activists who want to stop the hostility and discrimination?
Never give up! As the LGBTQ activists from a generation ago declared, Silence=Death! We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a long way to go. If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. Everything you do to create change makes a difference in the world and never forget that the future belongs to you!